Exploring our shared humanity
MARY CULLEN interviews an artist whose work seeks to show the faces of the women behind the global refugee crisis.
Hannah Rose Thomas is a portrait painter whose images of refugee women have been exhibited around the world. She studied art and history at the University of Durham, completed an MA in traditional painting techniques at the Prince’s School of Traditional Art, London, and is currently a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, where she is exploring the human and social impact of art for migratory and marginalised people. Her ‘Tears of Gold’ exhibition was part of an online exhibition to mark the 75th anniversary of the UN in 2020.
Hannah took time out from her studies to talk to Open House.
MC: Where were you born?
HRT: I was born in Turin, while my parents were living and working in Italy. My childhood memories are interwoven with summers spent in Italy, visiting the churches and being immersed in the wonder and beauty of Renaissance art. I often wonder whether this subconsciously drew me to study the painting techniques of this period.
MC: Is that why you studied at the Prince’s school in London?
HRT: It was a wonderful opportunity to learn the traditional techniques from different religious traditions around the world, including Islamic geometry and islimi, gilding, Byzantine icon painting and Persian and Indian miniature.
MC: What brought you to the University of Glasgow?
HRT: I was awarded a scholarship to study my PhD at the University of Glasgow with the UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts based there. It is a privilege to have this unique opportunity to work alongside an amazing team and to study something so close to my heart.
MC: When did your work with refugees begin?
HRT: While living in Jordan as an Arabic student in 2014, I had an opportunity to organise art projects with Syrian refugees for UNHCR – an experience which opened my eyes to the magnitude of the refugee crisis confronting our world today. I began to paint the portraits of some of the refugees I had met, to show the people behind the global crisis, whose personal stories are otherwise often shrouded by statistics. It was to share their stories that I began painting their portraits.
Through my work as an artist I have sought to be a voice for the voiceless and prescribe dignity to the forcibly displaced. I’ve since had the privilege of organising art projects with Yezidi women who escaped ISIS captivity in Iraqi Kurdistan, Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi camps and Christian women, survivors of sexual violence at the hands of Boko Haram or Fulani militants in Northern Nigeria.
MC: Have you always been interested in portrait painting?
HRT: I have loved to paint ever since I was very young, but my interest in portraiture only really began as a result of my travels and humanitarian work in Africa and the Middle East. The portrait paintings are an attempt to recreate a face-to-face encounter of sorts, a reminder of the individuals at the heart of these humanitarian crises, which are so distant and at times difficult to relate to. The philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas says, when we encounter the face of the ‘other’, especially in their suffering, it transforms us, and leads to mutual understanding and respect.
As a portrait painter I hope to communicate something of the beauty and sacred value of each individual in the eyes of God, regardless of race, religion or gender. Mother Teresa spoke of ‘seeking the face of God everywhere, everything, everyone all the time… especially in the distressing disguise of the poor.’ How different would it be if we treated each and every individual as a reflection of the image of God and of equal value in His eyes? Every person on earth is carrying the beauty of God. In Genesis 3 we read that God made man in His image – thus there is no greater presentation of God’s beauty on earth than the intricacies of a human being. There is no soul alive who does not reflect some aspect of God’s person. Perhaps our role as artists in the world is to recognise the divine spark in everyone and in all things and help to uncover it.
MC: The parallels you draw between traditional images of the Mater Dolorosa and the Yezidi, Rohingya and Nigerian women are striking. Why does the image of the mother of sorrows have such resonance for you?
HRT: For these portraits I chose the sacred imagery, gold leaf and tempera painting techniques that were used for paintings of the Virgin Mary – the Mater Dolorosa, Mother of Sorrows – in the early Renaissance. Mary, like these Yezidi women, also knew what it means to be poor, oppressed, a refugee. And for her heart to be pierced with grief at the loss of her beloved Son.
These paintings, like those of the Mater Dolorosa, seek to emotionally engage the viewer and inspire compassion, and are also meditations on the universal human experience of suffering. In these portraits we see a glimpse of the Yezidi women’s unspeakable grief but it is also a reminder that we all face grief, sorrow and loss at different times in life. We are not so different; we are inextricably connected to one another.
MC: What is the significance of the ‘tears of gold’ in your work?
HRT: It was August 2017 when I travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan for an art project with a group of Yazidi women who had escaped ISIS captivity. The project was based at the Jinda Centre – Jinda is Kurdish for New Life – a rehabilitation facility in Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan. The purpose of the art project was to teach the women how to paint their self-portraits as a way to share their stories with the rest of the world. It was the first time many had ever drawn or painted in their lives. The women chose to paint their tears in gold to convey their grief for loved ones lost or still in captivity.
The following year, in September 2018, I travelled to Northern Nigeria for an art project with Christian women, survivors of sexual violence at the hands of Boko Haram or Fulani militants, facilitated by Open Doors (an organisation which supports persecuted Christians). Like the Yezidi women, the women in Nigeria also chose to paint glistening tears of gold. One young woman, Aisha, who had suffered rape at the hands of Fulani militants, said that the gold tears symbolised God bestowing on her a crown of beauty instead of ashes; the oil of joy instead of mourning (Isaiah 61: 3). Above all the hope was to help them understand their identity as beloved daughters of God, and how they are valued in His eyes, seen and heard by Him. This affirmation of identity and value is especially important considering the shame and stigma of sexual violence.
MC: How would you describe the transformative and restorative effects of painting for those who have suffered trauma?
HRT: The art projects created a safe place for the Yazidi and Nigerian women to share their stories. Many of the key texts on trauma healing suggest two primal foundations: the building of a safe space as the container for sharing story. Telling our stories helps to integrate traumatic memories and gradually begin to heal and to reclaim our dignity after we have been hurt. However, research has shown that for survivors of human rights violations, everyday verbal language is often inadequate to convey the extent of the trauma and depth of emotions. The arts can provide a new form of communication to address the silence and unspeakable pain.
The purpose of the art projects was twofold – it was both therapeutic and also for advocacy – to empower the women’s voices to be heard through their self-portraits. All too often their stories of suffering remain unseen and unheard. The women understood that the aim was for these paintings to be shown in places of influence in the West to advocate on their behalf.
They said that sharing their stories together helped them to realise for the first time that they were not to blame and did not need to be ashamed. Telling our stories helps to integrate traumatic memories and gradually begin to heal and to reclaim our dignity after we have been hurt. Desmond Tutu explains, ‘it is our shared humanity, our shared losses, and our shared grief that ultimately allow us to reconnect again with the world around us. We are harmed together and we heal together.’
MC: You have spoken about the link between painting and prayer. How would you describe it?
HRT: Following my return from the art projects in Northern Nigeria and Iraqi Kurdistan, I poured my heart into painting the portraits of the women I’d had the privilege to work with. I hoped to capture something of the women’s extraordinary strength, resilience and dignity – to show that these women have not been defined by what they have suffered. Often tears would fall while I was painting and thinking about all that these courageous women had been through, and their ongoing suffering. The pain sometimes was overwhelming but the process of painting their portraits is in many ways a form of prayer – an outpouring of lament before God – before the God who weeps and suffers alongside us.
MC: How did the link between painting and advocacy develop?
HRT: Ever since I was young I have had this desire to be a voice for the voiceless somehow but never imagined this could be through art. For many years there has been this tension between these two aspects of myself – this longing to express beauty and hope through my paintings and yet another aspect compelled to work in the sphere of social justice and human rights. These two seemingly disparate strands have been woven together in the most beautiful and unexpected way that I could never have anticipated.
Through my work as an artist I have sought to be a voice for the voiceless and prescribe dignity to the forcibly displaced. These art projects and my portraits of displaced women have been shown in places including the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, in the hope of empowering their voices to be heard.
MC: What do you hope to do when you complete your PhD?
HRT: It is my hope to develop a deeper theoretical understanding of the transformative and restorative effects of the arts with regard to promoting human rights, reconciliation and peacebuilding. Once travel becomes possible again after Covid, I hope to have the opportunity to help facilitate further art projects with refugee and marginalised communities and to collaborate with other artists and organisations working in this field.